What is the mysterious ingredient for the perennial attraction that Ayn Rand’s books has for many readers of serious authors? Never agreeing with her brand of Objectivism, I simply thought that her attraction was an imponderable, just as when we shrug at the attraction of some cults.
Tthe question lingers: what could a Russian immigrant born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on February 2, 1905, escaping a communist and totalitarian state, teach us Americans about capitalism? Or more appropriately Ayn Rand capitalism–her own brand?
Her philosophical novels and books on viarsitek bore me to distraction. Not only that, I find her doctrines cold, distant from us common folks, finding in them –as I read in earnest– a streak of cruelty.
Howard Roark, the hero architect of The Fountainhead epitomizes what every contemporary American woman loathes: an individualist dunce with a tendency to oppress, dominate, and to always have it his way. In Atlas Shrugged, the hero John Galt morphs our system from a benign American capitalism into a Darwinian doctrine of survival of the fittest; and of course elimination of the unfit.
God forbid, one should have a child with Down syndrome, for Ayn Rand would surely advocate that he be euthanized. But since she was an atheist, this would never happen to her. God is out of the picture.
Again, what’s her contribution?
To see where she fits, let’s do a little history of philosophy. Hume’s skepticism holds that there’s no intellectual way in which one can prove that reality exists. What assurance do we have that sun will come up tomorrow? This challenge didn’t go unnoticed, for the philosopher Emmanuel Kant took up the challenge.
Next, Kant built an intellectual argument based on two inventions which he labeled a priori: time and space. These two categories he argued are inherent in human beings and with them and the categories of understanding we can get close to real things.
Kant’s legacy was that he condemned us to never experience reality face to face. We can only think it and filter it through our minds. The Thing-in-itself was never to be known. Ayn Rand worked hard to discredit Kant.
She thinks she broke down the brick walls that Hume and Kant had erected by the use of a clever tautology. With nerve and gumption she tells us that objective reality exists because we know most of it. If we want to use numbers we could say, we are 99.99999 per cent sure that a solid universe exists. She based her entire philosophical argument on a tautology: “existence exists.”
Forget about logic. Marvelously simple! That infinitesimal number that causes doubt is so puny that we can ignore it and let’s move on. Ah, to build lifetime arguments on a tautology!
But I see some merit in Ayn Rand’s assertion. Newton and Leibniz used the same approach when they invented the calculus. The theory of limits tells us that we don’t have to know an exact point in time and space; that a close approximation is sufficient.
When I see the Grace building on 42nd Street I always look up and try to locate the exact point where the arc and the straight line meet; where one ends and the other begins. Newton and Leibniz like Atlas shrugged off that darn point. Let’s move on and compute instantaneous rates of change, orbits, differentials, integrals, and so on.
Though she didn’t leave us much love and sentiment to speak of, she left this idea: if you wish to live in this planet, accept that it exists, be practical, don’t go to church and sing Amazing Grace, and above all be prepared to die alone, for groupies are not allowed.
She died alone in 1982 in her apartment in NYC, childless, husbandless, friendless and godless right to the bitter end: “When I die, I hope to go to Heaven, whatever the Hell that is.”